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DNA from envelope confirms identity of a Pearl Harbor sailor who died in 1941

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A Pearl Harbor casualty from 1941 whose identity was made possible by a Pearl Harbor survivor’s research and advances in science years later will be buried tomorrow in Hancock, Mich.

Navy Fireman Third Class Gerald G. Lehman, who was just 18 when he was killed on the battleship USS Oklahoma on Dec. 7, 1941, will be buried in his home state with full military honors, the Pentagon said today.

The Oklahoma suffered multiple torpedo hits and capsized. Of the 429 sailors and Marines who died, 393 crew members were buried as “unknowns” at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.

In 2003, independent researcher and Pearl Harbor survivor Ray Emory contacted the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command  with information about the identities of some of the Oklahoma unknowns at Punchbowl. Emory, 88, lives in Kahala.

After reviewing the case, the accounting command exhumed the casket containing Lehman’s remains, the Pentagon said.

Before he died at Pearl Harbor, Lehman sent home to Michigan letters that his mother came to treasure — and which later were used to positively identify the young sailor, his family said.

In those letters, the teen talked about going through Navy training in Great Lakes, Ill. — falling out of his sleeping hammock once — and how much he liked his new woolen uniform.

In graceful penmanship, he asked about the family dog, Duke; wrote about waiting to ship out from California on the Oklahoma; and seeing the mountains and rainbows of Oahu from the doomed ship.

Unknowingly, Lehman had sent home something else, something that wouldn’t be useful until decades later: his own DNA.

Sixty-eight years after he was killed, nuclear DNA lifted from the envelopes Lehman had licked helped the Hawaii-based accounting command positively identify Lehman.

Nuclear DNA from the letters home was used in the identification, a challenging approach that has been used fewer than 10 times since 2006, according to the lab.

Mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from each person’s mother, is routinely used by the lab, known as JPAC and based at Hickam Air Force Base, to help make identifications of service members recovered from past wars.

Nuclear DNA is inherited from each person’s mother and father, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, more copies of mitochondrial DNA in each cell, officials said.

“When you are looking at old skeletal remains, DNA breaks down over time,” Alexander Christensen, DNA coordinator for the accounting command, said back in April. “If you start out with 500 times as much mitochondrial DNA as nuclear DNA, then logically after 70 years, you’ve still got a lot more mitochondrial DNA.”

In Lehman’s case, a dental chart and a mitochondrial DNA comparison were still not enough to make a positive identification, so JPAC turned to nuclear DNA, officials said. The DNA work is done by the Armed Forces DNA Laboratory in Rockville, Md.

The Maryland lab made a mitochondrial match with Lehman’s sister, and then used nuclear DNA for a positive ID.

“Following the success of this, I have told the casualty offices of the Navy that I would love to have more envelopes from Oklahoma crew members,” Christensen said. “The way this ID worked out, it sets a great precedent that I would love to be able to maintain.”

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